In the realm of prominent American film critics and historians, Leonard Maltin is royalty. He’s known most widely throughout the country as the bespectacled and bearded Entertainment Tonight resident film critic (he’s currently in his 29th season), but true film buffs know him for his annual paperback movie guides. His latest, “Leonard Maltin’s 2011 Movie Guide,” comes out this Tuesday. The first edition dates back to 1969, when Maltin was just 18. Over the years, the yearly guides have become indispensable tools for film fans across the globe, by offering capsule reviews with a star rating system, alongside a full list of credits for each film.
indieWIRE is proud to host Maltin’s blog Movie Crazy, which was made live on iW’s blog network late last year. In celebration of Maltin’s latest guide, indieWIRE posed the veteran film critic some questions about his career, and about the book.
What led you to film criticism as a career?
I never set out to become a critic. It was film history that piqued my interest as a boy, when I first discovered “Laurel and Hardy” and “The Little Rascals” on television and started watching Walt Disney’s weekly TV show. It wasn’t until I joined the staff of the daily newspaper at New York University that I wrote my first film reviews, but even then I never dreamed it would become a career. That only came to pass when a producer at Entertainment Tonight saw me promoting one of my books on The Today Show and asked me to audition to become their on-air critic.
How did the idea for the first edition of your Movie Guide come about?
When I was about to graduate from high school, a teacher insisted that I meet an old friend of hers who was an editor at Signet Books; she thought we would enjoy knowing each other. It turns out he was looking for someone to produce a rival book to Stephen Scheuer’s paperback reference called “Movies on TV.” He asked if I knew it, I told him I did, and he asked what I would do differently. I immediately rattled off a number of ideas: listing the director, adding more cast names, citing the original running time, etc. He was familiar with my work from my fanzine Film Fan Monthly and offered me the job of taking on this book project. I was a bit stunned, but of course I said yes, little dreaming what I was letting myself in for. I was 17 at the time.
Considering how many films you watch on a weekly basis, how do you approach each one with a fresh and inquisitive mind?
I never have trouble approaching a new movie with a fresh point of view if the work itself is fresh. I love seeing a film with an original idea or a well-defined point of view. It’s when I have to slog through mechanical Hollywood products or unrewarding indie films that I sometimes lose heart. All it takes is seeing a really good movie—old or new—to recharge my batteries.
What do you most enjoy about the process of distilling your thoughts on film into the 150 words reviews that make up your Guide?
I like the challenge of trying to capture the essence of each movie in a concise review, even though it’s difficult at times. And while it can be enervating, I even relish the process of crafting a cast list, making sure we don’t leave out anyone significant—even if he or she isn’t a top-billed “name.”
Do you ever feel the urge to update the layout/format of the Guide, or is it a case of ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’?
The book has served an amazingly loyal readership for more than forty years, and while there are many things the Internet can provide on an immediate basis, our system of checks and balances (with my editorial colleagues) helps us avoid making a lot of mistakes—of omission and commission—that render some ‘net sources less than reliable. I’m grateful that we’re still alive and kicking, and that people have continued to support the book. I don’t see us changing our format; we work awfully hard just trying to stay accurate and relevant.